A report from the first HaCKS workshop of 2018-19 – by Johanna Blakey

Johanna Blakey is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield whose work explores continuity and change in the Sheffield dialect. Having attended the HaCKS workshop that was recently held in Sheffield, she would like to report her experiences from the event, with a particular focus on the talks relevant to her project.

Johanna writes:

The first HaCKS Workshop of the 2018/19 academic year was a great success, thanks to both the engaging and thought provoking talks from a range of speakers belonging to various fields within linguistics along with the excellent turnout. Here I will contribute a blog post about the day, outlining what was presented and what the take away messages are in relation to the key theme ‘indexicality.’
Our first talk was delivered by Emily Reed, who delivered an interesting examination of pronominal address in 14th century Anglo-Norman French, with comparisons to Middle English. Emily demonstrated the application of 1st 2nd and 3rd orders of indexicality according to Rene Van Compermolle (2011) to explore social meaning in the use of ‘Tu’ and ‘Vous’ forms beyond the binary meanings which are imposed upon double-indexical Modern French. This demonstrated that there is applicability of the concept of indexicality to research in historical linguistics, albeit with some caveats, which were also further explored in the following talk.
The second talk of the workshop was delivered by historical linguist Christine Wallis, who presented us with an interesting examination of the challenges of adopting the concept of indexicality in her own work, which focuses on the role of the scribes in producing and correcting medieval manuscripts. She pointed out the difficulty that comes with the lack of knowledge about a scribe’s motivation in making corrections, as well as a lack of ownership construed in the manuscripts, which inhibits our ability to reconstruct social meaning from such sources.
Thirdly, and of most interest to myself, was a joint talk by sociolinguists Hannah Leach and Holly Dann, focusing on ‘Alternative Methods of Accessing Social Meaning’. The talk began with an exploration of previous conventional methods of studying social meaning in sociolinguistic research, which include Ethnographic studies, Identity Questionnaires and Perception research. In acknowledging that it is not always practical or possible to carry out in depth ethnographic methodologies (which have been considered to be imperative in understanding local context and meaning in sociolinguistic research), Holly and Hannah then took it in turns to explain what this meant for their own PhD research. Both researchers saw it fitting to adopt less conventional methodologies and adapt their research methods in ways that allowed them to explore the indexicality of particular phonetic variables in the speech of participants in their home speech communities in substitution of ethnography.
Hannah took us through her research in Stoke-on-Trent, focusing on the social hierarchy of the Pottery industry and examining how belonging to particular departments has the potential to impact upon the linguistic variants that the participants produce. She presented evidence that speakers within an oral history archive in a Stoke Pottery Museum display linguistic variation which is dependant upon their role in the industry, and also that this linguistic behaviour can change according to topic shift. As the speakers in her sample are no longer alive for Hannah to revisit and carry out ethnography, she instead carried out a socio-cultural investigation of the Pottery Industry. This lead her to divide the sample by departments and look at the interactions between these departments as the analysis demonstrated that these categories are significant to the speakers. This demonstrates that, when an ethnography is not possible because the opportunity has been lost to time, it is possible to gain in-depth socio-cultural information by taking a socio-historical approach to understanding the local context by revisiting archives and revealing the necessary information.
Holly carried out research in Cornwall which focuses on the indexicality of phonetic variants (TRAP and BATH vowels) in 12 year old school children. Her distance from the speech community as a result of studying in the North of England meant that her contact with the speech community was limited and the ethnographic approach was beyond reach. Holly instead utilised experimental methods in investigating both the production and perception of her participants speech, which allowed her to explore the social meanings that her participants attach to certain linguistic forms. She was able to suggest that young speakers in her study are using shortened versions of the BATH and TRAP vowels, but this is not because they are conforming to wider standardisation and being influenced by Standard English as we might expect. They are instead innovating a new form, which is indexical of a Contemporary Cornish identity, but separate from the traditional Cornish identity of a ‘rural farmer’ which is associated with the longer and stigmatised vowel forms.  The pairing of production and perception methods allows us to carry out this type of analysis and, in Holly’s case, finding out about how youngsters perceive their local area and align with the concept of place aided her in establishing how their linguistic behaviour is utilised in performances of local identity.
Holly and Hannah’s research both show how we can use the concept of indexicality in sociolinguistic research to explore local identity, as speakers can be seen to utilize linguistic behaviour in performances of identity in local contexts. This talk encouraged me to think more about the concept of indexicality, and how I might utilize this in my own sociolinguistic PhD research project. I am studying Dialect Continuity and Change in Sheffield by utilizing a Real and Apparent Time trend study approach. This will consist of comparing archival dialect recordings with contemporary recordings to carry out a socio-phonetic analysis of sound change. The concept of indexicality could be useful in my own research when it comes to explaining why these changes happen and why individual speakers might conform to or avoid community wide trends to communicate particular social meanings.
Our next talk was by Paul O’Neill who questioned the concept of indexicality in linguistics. He pointed out that specific lexical items can have a broad range of meanings as there is ambiguity in variation, and therefore adopted theories from disciplines outside of linguistics, including cognitive psychology and sociology, to emphasise the importance of reading outside of our own fields to subsidise work in social meaning. He promotes the idea of symbolism, first theorised by Deacon (1997), as well as prototype theory in the study of linguistic meaning, as there is combinatorial complexitivity in language, which he claims linguistics often simplifies with the use of the concept of indexicality.
Our penultimate talk in the field of psycholinguistics was by Hielke Vriesendorp, who demonstrates how priming experiments can help us to understand how activation is spread in the indexical field. Hielke is carrying out exciting new research which aims to further our understanding of how accents are recognised below awareness, and presented to us findings of his pilot study which shows evidence that accent labels have the potential to prime related concepts both positively and negatively. He is able to demonstrate that semantic activation can be measured through priming, which shows that, cognitively, certain lexical items can be indexical of other concepts. This is something which he aims to further explore by presenting auditory cues to see whether hearing an accent or a particular phonetic feature can have the same effect.
Our final talk was from Svetlana Sokolova who expanded on the prior talks relating to cognitive linguistics and explored how indexicality might contribute to cognitive linguistics and vice versa. Her article is not directly about indexicality, but could be reinterpreted to some extent in connection with it. She suggested that indexicality can offer a more integrated approach to cognitive linguistics and help us better understand cognitive mechanisms.
These talks then paved the way for a stimulating discussion between speakers and attendees about the applications of indexicality across the various sub-disciplines in linguistics which rounded off a brilliant day and an excellent start to HaCKS for this academic year.

Click here to view the full programme of talks from this event, along with suggested readings relevant to each talk

Thank you, Johanna, for this account of our event! Please check out Johanna’s blog and twitter to hear more about her research!